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Has the pandemic made voters less scared of men with guns and knives?

Decision 2020

Law and order has always been the recipe for inciting fear and loathing among voters, but COVID has changed the narrative, writes Katrina Beikoff

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There was a time when elections spun on law and order fears, but even with the slaying of notorious bikie Shane Bowden on the Gold Coast, COVID may be shading crime on the priority list for voters.

When outlaw motorcycle gang boss Bowden was shot execution-style in his Pimpama driveway on the Gold Coast early Monday, some political reactions could have been ripped straight from the “war on crime” campaign handbook.

Calls by the Gold Coast’s record number of candidates to be tougher on crime, impose zero-tolerance crackdowns and promises of more police and harsher penalties came thick and fast.

With an imminent election, the brazen murder on a suburban street raising the horrific spectre of bikie warfare conventionally ought to have propelled law and order to campaign centre stage.

But these are not ordinary times.

On the Gold Coast, crime is down. But homicides in the city have grown seven-fold in the last 12-month reporting period from one to eight in 2019-2020, according to Bond University criminology expert Dr Terry Goldsworthy.

“That’s a concerning trend,” Goldsworthy said.

“But people are pre-occupied with COVID.”

It may mean conventional campaign tricks and tropes do not have the same resonance.

“I just think people are expecting something a little bit different at the moment, something a little bit inspirational, a bit less obvious,” said Director of the Griffith University Policy Innovation Hub, Professor Susan Harris Rimmer.

“I think it (war on crime rhetoric) is lazy politics. It’s stale.

“I think law and order resonates when people are frightened. I don’t think people are frightened of criminals. I think they’re frightened of disease and economic ruin.”

Police revealed up to four assailants killed Bowden in a hail of bullets as he drove into his garage from a trip to the gym about 12.10am Monday.

His death came just three months after he survived another attempt to kill him in Melbourne.

The ambush assassination prompted South Eastern Police Regional Crime Coordinator Detective Superintendent Brendan Smith to declare that while the motive for the killing was still unclear, it was a personal attack on Bowden and the incident should not ignite fears in the community of a bikie gang war.

“It’s not something you expect to happen in your home, but … you live by the sword, you die by the sword,” Smith said.

“The public has nothing to fear. It’s not gang on gang. We don’t expect any risk to the community at large,” Smith said.

But crime, and in particular criminal bikie gangs, has long been a keystone issue in Gold Coast elections. And sensationalising crime statistics for political gain has been a tool for politicians of all stripes.

Just prior to the election campaign, Labor started to pull at the law and order thread, announcing an additional 2025 police personnel for Queensland over the next five years, which it said was the largest investment in the force in the past 30 years.

The LNP countered by promising to lead a push for new laws to tackle rising knife crime across the Gold Coast and, in the wake of the Bowden slaying, vowed to reintroduce the LNP’s tougher bikie laws and launch a new crackdown on gun crime.

However, Griffith University political expert Dr Paul Williams said neither major party may find great political joy in 2020 playing the toughest on law and order card.

“It hasn’t really been the number one issue for a long time,” Williams said.

“State debt, public service blowouts, health… they are the big election turners.

“I’ve long said this election is a referendum on three questions: who is the stronger leader, and Labor hopes that is the way its framed; who’s got a better economic plan, which Labor also hopes is the way it’s framed; and were the borders closures effective or excessive, and that’s the one the LNP hopes it is framed that way.

“I don’t see how bikies fit into that narrative, even on the Gold Coast.”

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